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Opinions of Friday, 30 April 2021

Columnist: Chief Mike Ozekhome

The oracle: Why and how history defines who we are (Pt 6)


History and experience tell us that moral progress comes not in comfortable and complacent times, but out of trial and confusion. Last week, I started my discourse on the Kingdom of Benin. I have so far shown comprehensively, on the origin of the Benin Kingdom, demonstrating how the kingdom started in 900s, when the Edo people settled in the rain forests of West Africa and how it was later annexed by rampaging merchantilsitic British Colonialists in 1897. Today, I shall conclude our searchlight on what made this Kingdom stand out from other contemporary Kingdoms and Empires. Thereafter, beam my searchlight on Mansa Musa I, the ruler of the Mali Empire in West Africa, 1312 to 1337 CE.


At the end of the 19th century, the Kingdom of Benin had managed to retain its independence and the Oba exercised a monopoly over trade which the British found irksome. The territory was coveted by an influential group of investors for its rich natural resources such as palm-oil, rubber and ivory. After British consul Richard Burton visited Benin in 1862 he wrote of Benin’s as a place of “gratuitous barbarity which stinks of death”, a narrative which was widely publicized in Britain and increased pressure for the territory’s subjugation. 

In spite of this pressure, the kingdom maintained independence and was not visited by another representative of Britain until 1892 when Henry Gallwey, the British Vice-Consul of Oil Rivers Protectorate (later Niger Coast Protectorate), visited Benin City hoping to open up trade and ultimately annex Benin Kingdom and make it a British protectorate. Gallwey was able to get Omo n’Oba (Ovonramwen) and his chiefs to sign a treaty which gave Britain legal justification for exerting greater influence over the Empire. While the treaty itself contains text suggesting Ovonramwen actively sought Britain’s protection, this appears to be a fiction.

Gallway’s own account suggests the Oba was hesitant to sign the treaty. Although some suggest that humanitarian motivations were driving Britain’s actions, letters written between administrators suggest that economic motivations were predominant. The treaty itself does not explicitly mention anything about Benin’s “bloody customs” that Burton had written about, and instead only includes a vague clause about ensuring “the general progress of civilization”.


During the European Scramble for Africa in the late 1800s, Britain wanted to extend its control northwards over what became Nigeria, but Benin repeatedly rejected their diplomatic advances. In 1892, however, a British representative named H. L. Gallwey visited Benin and reportedly convinced the Oba to sign a treaty that essentially granted Britain sovereignty over Benin. Benin officials challenged the treaty and refused to follow its provisions in regard to trade. When a British party of officers and porters set out in 1897 to visit Benin City to enforce the treaty, Benin attacked the convoy killing almost everyone.

Britain immediately prepared a punitive military expedition to punish Benin for the attack and to send a message to other kingdoms that might resist. The British forces quickly defeated the Benin army and then razed Benin City, looting the magnificent artwork in the process.

When people in Benin discovered Britain’s true intentions were an invasion to depose the king of Benin, without approval from the king his generals ordered a preemptive attack on the British party approaching Benin City, including eight unknowing British representatives, who were killed. A punitive expedition was launched in 1897. The British force, under the command of Admiral Sir Harry Rawson, razed and burned the city, destroying much of the country’s treasured art and dispersing nearly all that remained. The stolen portrait figures, busts, and groups created in iron, carved ivory, and especially in brass (conventionally called the “Benin Bronzes”) are now displayed in museums around the world.


The city and Empire of Benin declined after 1700. By this time, European activity in the area, most notably through the Trans-Atlantic slave-trade, resulted in major disruptive repercussions. However, Benin’s power was revived in the 19th century with the development of the trade in palm oil and textiles. To preserve Benin’s independence, bit by bit the King of Benin banned the export of goods from Benin, until the trade was exclusively in palm oil.

By the last half of the nineteenth century Great Britain had become desirous of having a closer relationship with the Kingdom of Benin. Several attempts were made to achieve this end beginning with the official visit of Richard Burton in 1862. Following that was an attempt to establish a treaty between Benin and the United Kingdom by Hewtt, Blair and Annesley in 1884, 1885 and 1886 respectively. But Benin resisted signing a protectorate treaty with Britain through most of the 1880s and 1890s. Progress was finally made by Vice-Consul H.L Gallwey’s visit to Benin in 1892. This mission was significant in several ways. It was the first Official visit after Richard Burton’s in 1862, and it would also set in motion the events to come that would lead to the Kingdom of Benin’s demise.

During his visit, Vice-Consul H.L. Gallwey claimed to have convinced the King of Benin to sign a formal agreement between the kingdoms of Benin and Great Britain, which would come to be known as “The Gallwey Treaty of 1892.”

Contrary to the stories told by Gallwey later, for a number of reasons there is still today some controversy as to whether the Benin monarch actually agreed to the terms of the treaty as Gallwey had claimed. First, at the time of his visit to Benin the monarch could not welcome Gallwey or any other foreigners due to the observance of the traditional Igue festival which prohibited the presence of any non-native persons during the ritual season.

Also, even though Gallwey claimed the King and his chiefs were willing to sign the treaty, it was common knowledge that the ruler was not in the habit of signing one sided treaties. The Treaty reads “Her Majesty the Queen of Great Britain and Ireland, Empress of India in compliance with the request of [the] King of Benin, hereby extend to him and the territory under his authority and jurisdiction, Her gracious favor and protection” (Article 1).

The Treaty also states “The King of Benin agrees and promises to refrain from entering into any correspondence, Agreement or Treaty with any foreign nation or power except with the knowledge of her Britannic Majesty’s Government” (Article 2), and finally that “It is agreed that full jurisdiction, civil and criminal over British subject’s and their property in the territory of Benin is reserved to her Britannic Majesty, to be exercised by such consular or other officers as Her Majesty shall appoint for the purpose…The same jurisdiction is likewise reserved to her Majesty in the said territory of Benin over foreign subjects enjoying British protection, who shall be deemed to be involved in the expression “British subjects” throughout this “Treaty” (Article 3).

It makes little sense that the monarch and his chiefs would accept the terms laid out in articles IV-IX, or that he or his chiefs would knowingly bestow their dominion upon Queen Victoria for so little apparent remuneration. Under Article IV, the treaty states that “All disputes between the King of Benin and other Chiefs between him and British or foreign traders or between the aforesaid King and neighboring tribes which cannot be settled amicably between the two parties, shall be submitted to the British consular or other officers appointed by Her Britannic Majesty to exercise jurisdiction in the Benin territories for arbitration and decision or for arrangement.”

The chiefs attest that the King of Benin did not sign the treaty because he was in the middle of an important festival which prohibited him from doing anything else (including signing the treaty). The King maintained that he did not touch the white man’s pen. Gallwey later claimed in his report that the King basically accepted the signing of the treaty in all respects. Despite the ambiguity over whether or not the monarch signed the treaty, the British officials easily accepted it as though he did because they were driven (to a large extent) by greed; British officials were increasingly interested in controlling trade in Benin and also in accessing the kingdom’s rubber resources to support their own growing tire market. However, after Benin discovered Britain’s true intentions, eight unknowing British representatives, who had been sent to visit Benin were killed. As a result a Punitive Expedition was launched in 1897. The British force, under the command of Admiral Sir Harry Rawson, razed and burned the city, destroying much of the country’s treasured art and dispersing nearly all that remained. The stolen portrait figures, busts, and groups created in iron, carved ivory, and especially in brass (conventionally called the “Benin Bronzes”) are now displayed in museums around the world. The King of Benin was eventually captured by the British, deposed and sent to live out his days in Calabar, in southeastern Nigeria. He died in 1914.


The monarchy continues to exist today as one of the traditional states of contemporary Nigeria. Ewuare II, the present king, is one of the most prominent of the various traditional rulers of Nigeria. (The end).


Mansa Musa I was the ruler of the Mali Empire in West Africa from 1312 to 1337 CE. Controlling territories rich in gold and copper, as well as monopolizing trade between the north and interior of the continent, the Mali elite grew extremely wealthy. A Muslim like his royal predecessors, Mansa Musa brought back architects and scholars from his pilgrimage to Mecca who would build mosques and universities that made such cities as Timbuktu internationally famous. Mansa Musa’s 1324 CE stopover in Cairo, though, would spread Mali’s fame even further and on to Europe where tall tales of this king’s fabulous wealth in gold began to stir the interest of traders and explorers. Mansa Musa, the Mali Empire’s greatest ever ruler, was said to have spent so much gold in the markets of the Egyptian city that the value of bullion crashed by 20%.


Mansa Musa was succeeded first by his son Mansa Maghan I (r. 1337-1341 CE), who had also ruled as regent while his father had been on his famous pilgrimage, and then by his brother Mansa Sulayman. (To be concluded).


“But we cannot just take this historical fact for granted. We must make it live.” (Wendell Willkie).

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